Tara Ison knows how to make you squirm for a purpose in ‘Ball: Stories’

Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

Ball Stories By Tara Ison, $16.

Tara Ison’s tales are twisted. In her new collection, Ball: Stories, Ison pokes at her reader’s every discomfort. Whether she’s tapping into sexual obsession, fear, violence or love, Ison knows how to find the most uncomfortable place and stay there, relishing it for its weirdness, its taboo nature and its complication. Ball is a collection of short stories narrated mostly by damaged women. Some are in painful relationships, while others seek pain out as a way to be sure they feel as deeply as possible. It’s creepy, titillating and impossible to put down.

Many of Ison’s characters only trust their feelings when they are most painful. She allows them to work out their anxieties to the nth degree; in her steady hand each tale is a macabre exploration of the ugly, naked needs that drive love. In “Cactus,” a woman recounts her relationship with a now-dead lover, one who found himself in the empty desert skies. Though she gets through to her love, (“I got him to tear off a piece of the vastness,” she says), at the end of the story she finds herself craving pain as a way to feel, to remember, or to wake herself from the numbness of grief. Each of Ison’s stories shows how love agonizes as much as it heals.

But to say they center on pain would be an over-simplification. The author’s work demonstrates an ear for the suffering that’s at the core of many lives, and the myriad ways we use that to wound, entice and reject each other. There’s a progression of ideas—or rather, a progression of deviancy and dread—from one story to the next. In the title story, Ison’s character loves her dog so much she fantasizes both saving and killing her; in “Bakery Girl,” an ingénue is torn between coveting a life as a grown-up and realizing that the adult world offers betrayal more than truth. “Wig” is a delicately woven revenge tale about a woman caring for her best friend, who’s dying of cancer. Lines like “it should have been me” take on not just a literal, obvious significance, but in what seems to be Ison’s trademark style, the author calls back to them later in the story to flip them upside down.

Her women lie to be heard, they are sometimes interchangeable and they punish themselves even as they are punished. But though those are elements of feminine existence that have been explored before, there’s nothing in Ball that isn’t fresh or disturbing. Ison knows the draw of the taboo, and she understands that good stories make us feel—even things we would rather not.

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